You are unconscious, floating unknowing through formless nothing. When you wake, you will not know where you are, or when you are, or who you are. When you wake it will be to a world that is hostile to you for reasons you cannot remember, and a compass in the shape of a lynching. You are not awake yet. Right now, the person you were is dying, and your brain is talking to you.
“Disco Elysium” is an isometric RPG developed by indie publisher ZA/UM. It was released originally in 2019, and since then there have been two major updates. The first came in March of 2021 and included full voice acting for all dialogue and narration in the game. The second came in December of 2021 and added new content.
You play as cop, disco fan, amnesiac, and generally pathetic drunkard Lieutenant Harrier “Harry” Du Bois. The plot starts with you investigating a corpse hanging from a tree — a corpse that has been hanging from that tree for a full week — and it does not get less bleak from there. The bulk of gameplay is reading. Actions that your character takes are resolved by rolling a pair of digital dice and adding a number determined by your character’s “skills.”
The reading is so integral that, if someone asked what my favorite video game is, I would say “Disco Elysium,” but if someone asked what my favorite book is, I would also say “Disco Elysium.”
The part of this game that really gets me, the part that makes me want to talk about it all the time to anyone that stands near me for long enough, is the characterization of its protagonist. More specifically, how they reveal that character to the player. I said most of the gameplay is reading, and most of what you are reading is Harry’s internal monologue. There are 24 in-game “skills,” and when you put points into them, they not only affect Harry’s ability to accomplish tasks, they affect the way he interprets the world around him. They do this by talking to him — literally, they are literal voices in his head. There is a joke among “Disco Elysium” fans that when you pick your skills, you are also picking your “party,” your companions for the journey ahead.
It is an incredibly unique way of character building. The game, by virtue of being largely text-based, is able to reveal this character to you in his entirety by personifying every single thought he has. They do this without being boring by being clever and funny instead.
No human alive has a brain that is actually like this, but Harry feels more like an authentic human than most other video game characters. The humans I know do not have neat labels for every aspect of their personality, or for every place in their psyche that any given impulse comes from, but we all contain multitudes. The only difference between the conflicting impulses in your head and the ones in Harry’s is his have a name.